Sexual Ethics, Part 1: Voice and Dignity

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat VaYishlah

CONTENT WARNING: Dinah and sexual victimization

The most devastating part of the story of Dinah in this week’s parashah is that the Torah does not share Dinah’s perspective. We have no idea if this was “the rape of Dinah” or an encounter she desired. Interpretations over the past many centuries have gone in strikingly divergent directions—which just amplifies the extent to which her consent and her voice are entirely irrelevant in the plain text. This gap is not surprising, but as inheritors of Torah we must ask ourselves how we inherit this part of our Torah responsibly. Recent research on sexual victimization can inform our understanding of the power of seeking out Dinah’s “voice” in this story, and also accompanying risks.

The story of Dinah begins with quick action: Dinah “went out,” Shekhem “saw her,” “took her,” “lay with her,” and “humbled her (ויענה).” Then it zooms in on Shekhem’s emotional experience: “his soul clung to Dinah,” he “loved her” and he “spoke to her heart” (34:1-3). This relatively verbose discussion of Shekhem’s feelings makes it all the more glaring that we have no indication of what Dinah feels.

Scholars have investigated whether or not the word “he humbled her” (ויענה) indicates rape.1 The root generally reflects a violation of a woman’s sexual honor, separate from any concern with her own consent. It seems that Dinah’s consent and experience is simply not of concern. The story turns on the concept of טומאה, her sexual pollution, which leads the brothers to avenge their family’s honor.2

On a basic level, the “pollution” is that an outsider abducted their sister. But there could be different resonances of “pollution” as ongoing negative residue, or stigma, in the context of sexual victimization. The brothers’ mobilization around their perception of Dinah’s violation should make us wonder about Dinah’s actual experience of stigma.

One contemporary feminist midrash conveys the stigma embedded in her silence:

...Also it says “He lay with her and humbled her”—and it does not say “Dinah screamed.” 

Would you ever have thought that Dinah wouldn’t scream?
Rather, she was like a mute—because of the pain and shame she became silent and still.3

In this reading, Dinah had no voice to scream when Shekhem mistreated her, not only because of the pain and shame in this particular encounter, but because, as a woman, she had been ignored and silenced for years. Dinah’s silence reflects a long history of stigma.

Contemporary research on sexual victimization teaches how powerful it can be to break this stigma of silence. Dr. Guila Benchimol writes, “...becoming able to speak about one’s shame and deconstruct it is a key process of shame resilience and why it is important to critically interrogate who can speak and be heard.”4 Many interpreters over the centuries have spoken into the textual vacuum of Dinah’s experience, and we have to critically interrogate who and what is and isn’t heard. Speaking these narratives runs the risk “secondary” stigma, as others engage in character judgement, potentially introducing new dimensions of shame.

Rashi presents one such fraught character judgment. In this telling, based on midrash, Dinah sought out the encounter with Shekhem. She promiscuously “went out” (ותצא) as “the daughter of Leah” who, years earlier, also “went out” to entice her husband Ya’akov with an aphrodisiac (Genesis 30:14-16). Rashi then interprets the word “he humbled her” (ויענה) as sexual mistreatment (ביאה שלא כדרכה). She suffers for her promiscuity as Shekhem ends up mistreating her. Here, the intuition of midrash to fill gaps in the inner experiences of figures in the Torah leads to a “blame the victim” approach; it invents fault as a way of explaining what led to Dinah’s sexual pollution. This invention of fault goes so far as to malign Leah in the totally licit context of marriage! The midrash links Dinah and Leah based on the verse “a daughter is like her mother” (Ezekiel 16:44), embedded in a chapter of Ezekiel that harshly critiques Israel as a harlot, revealing the intensity of this trope that blames Dinah.5

The midrash did not need to pursue this path of blame and “secondary stigma.” Ramban presents an entirely different story. Dinah is known as Leah’s daughter not to introduce a history of promiscuity, but to foreshadow the role of her zealous brothers. He insists that the word ענה refers to forced intercourse, and the Torah relates Dinah’s praise by stressing that she was not enticed by the prince Shekhem. His focus on coercion is nothing less than remarkable, given that the straightforward usage of the word seems to be about sexual honor. However, this “positive” judgment of Dinah’s character has its own danger of idealized female sexual purity. Ramban draws on tropes where female honor depends on absolute and “heroic” resistance to illicit sexual advances.

What does it look like to seek out Dinah’s voice and experience in a way that interrupts, rather than perpetuates, ongoing stigma, shame, and dangerous idealization of female sexual purity? Dr. Guila Benchimol has studied how the decision to speak up and disclose can serve as a powerful intervention out of a cycle of self-blame. Based on extensive interviews, she writes: “Disclosing also allowed participants to combat the internalization of shame… disclosing was more than a stigma management technique or act of advocacy/activism; it was an act of silence breaking and stigma resilience, resistance, and rejection.”6

Finding one’s own voice and sharing a story is an act of self-expression that resists accruing the shame of silence or being misunderstood by others. In this vein, a contemporary midrash resists the “blame” narrative of Dinah and reinterprets the phrase “Dinah went out.” Just as Leah “went out” to greet her husband Ya’akov for the sake of the mitzvah of marital intercourse, so too Dinah “went out” to find a spouse.7 She is also following in the footsteps of her father Ya’akov who “went out” from Be’er Sheva to find a spouse. Instead of maligning Dinah as an inappropriately promiscuous young woman, she becomes a protagonist with a quest and journey like her ancestors. If she went on to be mistreated, we must be ready to listen to her narration of the impact of this mistreatment on her life’s path.

This first step of disclosure that leads out of self-blame can be intertwined with advocacy, hence the central message and title of Dr. Benchimol’s work, “Victims are Doing it for Themselves.” Instead of a story where brothers (or other outsiders) swoop in based on their own sense of violation to avenge a silent sister, our focus shifts to how a person facing this kind of stigma can find their own voice, and carve out pathways of resilience and dignity that can have ripple effects on others.

The Torah offers an account like so many in our own moment, where women’s experiences of a charged sexual encounter are silenced and invisible, leaving only “טומאה”—an ongoing residue of stigma. It should bother us that we have no idea what Dinah’s experience was, whether or not she suffered a violation of her consent. And it should bother us that there are so many experiences of sexual victimization that remain a silent secret in our own day. We have to be wary of how others can project narratives onto someone who has been sexually victimized—like the range of interpretations that judge Dinah’s character based on dangerous idealizations, without sensitivity to the reality of this experience. Dinah’s voice is lost forever, but her silence offers us a challenge. It invites us to create meaningful contexts for people to speak of their sexual victimization, and to honor the multifaceted pathways of resilience in the face of stigma.

1 Carolyne Blyth discusses the semantic range of this word and the various paths of interpretation taken in scholarship in her interpretation of Genesis 34 and the story of Dinah, The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence (Oxford, 2010), pp. 63–68.

2 Biblical interpretations that were precursors to our rabbinic tradition show what it looks like to inherit a sexual ethics that is more concerned with pollution than consent. In retellings of biblical narratives, we see that a “polluted” wife was forbidden to her husband, even if this act of pollution was against her will. When the Dead Sea Scrolls text, Genesis Apocryphon, speaks of Sarai being abducted by Pharoah, Avram woefully bemoans the possibility that his wife may become “impure” to him and he will not be able to be with her again—even as this is an act that is “forced” and against her will. Similarly, in Testament of Reuben Bilhah tells Ya’akov she cannot be with him again after Reuben forces himself upon her; she has automatically become “polluted.”

3 Rivka Luvitz, “Midrashim of Dinah,” in Dirshuni volume 1, p. 66: "ועוד נאמר 'וישכב אתה ויענה' (בראשית לד:ב) ולא נאמר 'ותצעק דינה'. וכי יעלה על דעתך שלא צעקה דינה? אלא כאילמת נהייתה, שמחמת הכאב ומחמת הבושה נשתתקה ונדמה."

Benchimol, “Victims are Doing it for Themselves: Examining the Move from Victim to Advocate,” (P.h.D thesis, University of Guelph, January 2019) p. 198.

The root י.צ.א., “to go out,” also recurs in Ezekiel 16:14 in the context of the promiscuity of Israel worshipping other gods.

6 Benchimol, p. 198.

7 Luvitz, p. 67